Opponents of Wake Boats Seek New Rules, Roiling Lake Communities | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Opponents of Wake Boats Seek New Rules, Roiling Lake Communities

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Published August 24, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 6, 2022 at 3:13 p.m.


Dan Sharpe on Lake Iroquois in Hinesburg - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Dan Sharpe on Lake Iroquois in Hinesburg

A debate over proposed rules for wake boats is stirring the waters of Vermont's lakes and ponds this summer.

Wake boats are large watercraft specially designed to create a rear wave big enough to surf on. Large water tanks serve as ballast, tipping the rear of the boat down and extending the propeller deep into the lake.

These formidable motorboats — many 25 feet long and costing $150,000 — have long plied the waters of Vermont's two largest bodies of water, Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog. But over the past few years, they have started appearing on Vermont's smaller lakes. Some shoreline homeowners and lake users are calling on the state to regulate where and how the craft are used, saying they harm the environment and disturb the peace. Proposed restrictions would amount to the most significant new lake rules in Vermont in decades.

"The people who operate them want to say, 'We're responsible; we're not doing anything wrong,' but the activity itself disrupts people," said Dan Sharpe, a Buffalo, N.Y., lawyer who has owned a home on Chittenden County's Lake Iroquois for 16 years. "It disrupts swimmers, it disrupts kayakers, and it disrupts animals on the shoreline."

In the spring, Sharpe helped a group called Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes draft a detailed petition to the Department of Environmental Conservation outlining ways that many lake associations would like to see the wake boats regulated. The DEC held two public hearings on the petition this summer, took written comments and is gathering other input to determine whether new rules are needed. Any proposed actions would go to Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, who could take the matter to the state legislature's rulemaking process next year.

Currently, wake boats are allowed anywhere on any lake where motorboats are permitted. The petition, which was submitted in March, calls for restricting use of the boats to at least 1,000 feet away from the shoreline and to water that is at least 20 feet deep.

"These powerful waves pose an injury hazard to other boaters, swimmers, and those on floating shoreline structures," the petition says.

The petitioners have also asked the DEC to restrict wake boat use to larger areas of the 19 interior lakes that already meet minimum size requirements for personal watercraft such as Jet Skis. In its 1995 "quiet lakes" law, the state restricted personal watercraft to lakes of at least 300 acres.

The 19 listed in the petition include Hortonia, Caspian, Crystal, Bomoseen, Seymour, Averill and St. Catherine — many of them northern lakes that have managed to avoid the scourge of Eurasian water milfoil, an invasive weed that forms dense mats on lake surfaces, clogging propeller blades and competing with native plants. Together, lake associations and the state spend thousands of dollars to control the olive green aquatic plant.

Petitioners say wake boats spread milfoil and other pests through the exchange of the ballast water that they use to create big waves.

The policy questions raised by the petition's recommendations are complicated. The steps the petition outlines would likely increase the number of wake boats on the designated lakes, raising the risk that milfoil-free bodies of water will soon be battling the weed, said Michael Torpey, who owns a house on Lake Seymour in Morgan, which is on the list.

"Rather than trying to actually solve or prevent problems caused by wake boats on all Vermont lakes, the petition proposes that the problems be pushed off select smaller lakes and pushed onto larger lakes, some of which are the most pristine in the state and in the entire country," Torpey said in written testimony to the DEC. He would rather see the boats banned altogether on such lakes.

Mark Milazzo, a spokesperson for Responsible Wakes for Vermont Lakes, described the organization as a loose and informal group. Milazzo lives on the 330-acre Peacham Pond, which is not a place where wake boats would be suitable, according to the proposed rules outlined in the petition.

"These things are bad for the environment and bad for public safety," Milazzo said. "They're really destructive, not only with the waves they create but the impact on shorelines and people."

The National Marine Manufacturers Association, which represents some companies that make wake boats and which opposes the petition, has faced similar restrictions in other states, notably Minnesota. The University of Minnesota's College of Science & Engineering completed a study earlier this year that found wake boats need to stay farther from shore than traditional motorboats to minimize the impact of their waves by the same amount. The study said the boats produce waves that are two or three times higher than those created by traditional boats, with energy that is six to nine times stronger.

Rodney Putnam and his wake boat on Lake Iroquois - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Rodney Putnam and his wake boat on Lake Iroquois

David Dickerson, a lobbyist for the manufacturers' association, said some states have passed regulations on wake boat use, though none in the Northeast. New Hampshire lawmakers considered restrictions this year.

He said rules are not needed.

"Vermont is unique," said Dickerson, who is based in the Washington, D.C., area. "The testimony I heard repeatedly was that users of a lake have worked out ways to cooperate and ensure that everyone has a good day on the water. As one person testified, it's the way of Vermonters to work things out among themselves rather than to rely on government to make strident demands."

Others in Vermont agree that new restrictions are unnecessary. State law now limits the speed of motor boats to 5 miles per hour if they are within 200 feet of swimmers, docks and other occupied shores. But that rule is little-known, said Eric Splatt, manager of Woodard Marine in Castleton, on Lake Bomoseen.

"Vermont has some good regulations," said Splatt, who has sold about half a dozen wake boats to Vermonters so far this year. "I'd like to see more education and more enforcement of the rules we have now."

The Water Sports Industry Association, based in Orlando, Fla., is working to head off legal restrictions through a voluntary campaign that encourages wake boat users to turn down their radios and avoid making repetitive passes in the same area.

Chris Conant, vice president of the Lake Iroquois Association, favors the voluntary approach and better education. Conant said the huge boats pictured in the petition are unlikely to make an appearance on Vermont's interior lakes.

"You'd never be able to trailer that boat to any lake in Vermont," he said of one craft depicted in the petition. "Maybe Lake Champlain, but no other. It was very exaggerated."

Conant, who lives in Richmond, said he was pleased recently to see young people wake surfing.

"I thought, Here we have teenagers enjoying themselves and having an activity outside of sitting in their living room with a computer in front of them. It just warmed my heart," he said. "If you look at the petition and the way it's presented, that's never going to happen again."

Conant argued that storms cause equivalent big waves and shoreline erosion.

"If we're going to look at something we ought to deal with, it's the amount of wave action we see when a storm rolls through," he said. "And that happens now with climate change on an almost daily basis."

Although the DEC has adjusted speed limits on particular lakes and enacted other rules over the years, the changes envisioned in the petition would be the largest since the Jet Ski rules of 1995, according to Laura Dlugolecki, an environmental analyst in the department's lake and shoreland permitting division. That's led to a lot of attention: About 300 people submitted written comments about the petition ahead of a July 29 deadline, and 87 spoke during DEC hearings in Manchester and Richmond, Dlugolecki said.

The DEC will continue to research the issue this autumn as it determines whether to recommend any rule change to Moore. Lawmakers would also need to sign off as part of the legislature's rulemaking process.

The issue has kicked up the waters at Lake Iroquois, which is surrounded by the towns of Hinesburg, St. George, Richmond and Williston.

"It's created a little bit of a hotbed around here," said lakeshore resident Rodney Putnam, who uses his 23-foot wake boat for wake surfing. He said misbehavior is possible among all types of lake users, adding that he has seen kayakers float so close to loon nests that the birds flapped their wings at them.

And on a populated lake, Putnam said, there is bound to be noise.

"You're pigeonholing my boat as the source of the issue, but what if someone across the lake is having a graduation party?" Putnam said. "Sound carries across the water."

The debate is being closely watched in Greensboro, where Caspian Lake is billed as "Vermont's most peaceful." While many Vermont lakes are abuzz with motorboats, some blasting music and flying large flags, Caspian tends to offer a more genteel experience in keeping with the understated vibe of an area that is also home to the historic Highland Lodge.

"Lake Caspian has historically been a lake that embraces canoeing, kayaking and trout fishing," retired lawyer David Kelley wrote in testimony on behalf of the Greensboro Selectboard, of which he is a member. He said if wake boats are not restricted to Lakes Champlain and Memphremagog, local selectboards should have the power to regulate them — a power that only the DEC wields now.

Kelley noted that the community has carefully protected its wildlife, including loons, which nest on shorelines and are vulnerable to unusual wave activity.

"These boats do not belong on Lake Caspian," he wrote.

Disclosure: Anne Wallace Allen's partner owns property on one of the 19 lakes the petition deems suitable for wake boats.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Water Wars"